- Transmissions and Transitions in Indian Oral Traditions: An Introduction
To assemble a group is to invite conversation. The essays that come together in this special issue of Oral Tradition all arrive bearing insights cultivated through extended engagements with very different settings. Settling into this shared space, the essays speak resonantly to each other. They cluster around shared themes, circulate in paired dialogues, and also stand back to offer the others distinctive perspectives.
Many special issues that this journal has hosted first emerged from a conference where participants met face-to-face and heard each other’s ideas. This set of contributors assembles together for the first time with the journal’s publication. I imagine that my fellow authors will be just as intrigued as I have been to learn what others have written, and to contemplate these six essays as a sociable group. I use this introductory space to offer notes on conversations that I perceive; a discerning reader will no doubt pick up on others.
But first I need to establish the wider setting of the vast diversity of Indian oral traditions that stretches beyond these contributions, and indeed stretches beyond the boundaries of modern India into the Indian diaspora. The work of these six scholars cannot possibly convey the many regions, languages, religions, and genres of traditional performance that contribute to India’s cultural vibrancy. The many planes of differentiation within India offer the dynamic for variation set into motion when oral traditions move between regions. Power differentials also shed light on the standardization that occurs when dominant groups dictate tastes. Such dominance is variously embodied in the authoritative clout of Brahmanical or puranic Hindu texts and practices, the prestige of middle class values, and the mesmerizing power and spread of technological mediation. Especially since the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 and the growth of a vast middle class, oral traditions have been revalued through a middle-class lens—some traditions embraced with nostalgia, others discarded as outmoded. The push towards greater literacy in formally recognized languages over sometimes unwritten dialects has also meant that non-literate forms of knowledge carried in regional dialects can be seen as quaint and irrelevant. That approximately half of the population of about 1.28 billion is age 26 or younger means that traditions associated with the vanished life worlds of elders can be less captivating than contemporary cultural forms centered around youth’s concerns and carried by film, television, and the internet. The hard-won knowledge of lower caste specialists in ritual and oral tradition, as well as the informally communicated oral traditions of the poor, the nonliterate and the old, can seem detached from the goals of getting ahead amid increasing urbanization, industrialization, and the spread of technology.
In terms of region, these essays mostly present oral traditions from sites in north India, in a big band stretching from Rajasthan towards Bengal--with the exception of Flueckiger’s fieldwork location in Andhra Pradesh and Prasad’s use of a story from Karnataka. The essays’ cultural resonances also extend beyond India with Prasad’s counterpoint between Shakespeare and Indian folktales and Friedlander’s description of how Kabir song traditions have been recast in the West. With languages, the group tilts towards Hindi and North Indian languages—with Flueckiger, working in Telugu, offering the exception. At the same time, the medium of English used to convey the authors’ thoughts about oral traditions and to discuss preexisting translations and scholarly literature is a reminder of the ways that the English language has since colonial times onwards become an aspect of Indian orality. In terms of religion, the contributions offer insights into the practices associated with Hinduism whether in localized variation or in pan-Indian standardization, though Friedlander’s account of the diverse audiences for Kabir illustrates how Kabir also belongs to Muslim and Sikh communities and is even appropriated by mystical Christianity. And in terms of folklore genres, the essays offer examples of myths, legends, folktales, songs and proverb.
The essays at first glance fall into two groups: those that highlight oral traditions in the context of ritual life (Flueckiger, Gold, Sharma) and those that focus on the mutual...